See part 1 here.
A ship carrying Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka has landed on the shores of my hometown in Canada. Some of them may be members of the Tamil Tigers, but there are hundreds of men, women and children on board.
This event is not an isolated incident. First, it is not the first boatload of Tamil refugees to wash up on Canada’s shores since the end of the civil war last year. Second, it is not the first boatload of refugees from the wartorn world to appear in the rich world. This ship is part of a trend that we would be foolish to ignore or misread.
When originally outlining the chain of future conflict, I posited the following pattern.
* Climate change and other environmental damage will put pressure on and destroy local environments in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
* People will be forced to move to other countries to survive.
* Barriers to immigration will rise.
* Those who are kept out will fight with the elites over scarce resources.
* Those who make it into other countries will be looked upon as wretched and unable to integrate.
* The incidence of war among those whose environments are threatened, whether or not they migrate, will increase.
* A new kind of refugee, the Environmental Refugee, will emerge.
The refugee boat trend is slightly different, as it is not related to environmental change but conventional war. War and conflict have not abated in our brave new world and are not ready to end any time soon. As a result, more refugees will appear on the shores of the rich world.
The immediate reaction is to raise barriers to immigration. The US border with Mexico, for instance, which is fighting a terrible drug war, is the object of a debate on whether to erect an enormous fence to keep Mexicans out. The Canadian government’s approach to the Sri Lankan refugees has so far been somewhat more compassionate: letting them alight in Canada and then determining if they should be sent back or not.
This approach may be the most realistic, at least at the moment. However, should refugee numbers increase, it might become wishful thinking. Criminalising refugees tends not to decrease numbers of refugees but increase the amount of violence employed in both bringing them in and sending them back. Sending Canada’s navy to intercept today’s boats costs money. If too many boats come, which is the fear, more naval vessels will be dispatched to stop them. At some point that I will let economists estimate, it could cost more money to stop people coming in than to let them in.
Moreover, criminal syndicates are heavily involved in human trafficking and their income and power increases when a market is prohibited. If there is demand, someone will fill it; if the act is illegal, it will continue but in the form of crime.
The current course may be politically and economically realistic at present, but if trends continue we will need new policies and attitudes to survive the possible nightmares of the future. Putting more effort into ending war and environmental destruction is one possibility. More intercultural education and integration is another. Criminalising everything we find unpleasant is not.